Punch! Kick! Gouge! (And Other Ways to Lead)

Executives who are hungry for leadership are taking weekend courses at Dani-Hi, Israel's world-famous school for counterterrorism training. We'd tell you more -- but then we'd have to kill you.

An 82-year-old great-grandfather with snow-white hair and hearing aids in both ears shuffles down the steps of the shooting range. The years have shrunk his once-impressive physique into a stoop, but Max Kahan -- a former major in the Jewish Brigade, brigadier of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) , founder of the National Police Academy, managing director of the Israel School of Counter-Terrorism at Dani-Hi, in Caeserea, Israel -- is still a man to be reckoned with.

"I've been to dozens of military funerals," he whispers to his audience, "and it's always the same thing. The rabbi comes forward and says, 'Ravi -- or Yaakov, or Moshe, or whoever -- was the bravest warrior who ever lived. He was the best friend a man ever had. He was the greatest asset to his family, to his army, and to the state of Israel.'

"But do you know what the rabbi always forgets to say?" he asks. An uncomfortable pause follows, because everyone knows that Kahan's son died on the Golan Heights. "The rabbi always forgets to say, 'But, alas, poor Ravi -- he shot like a schmuck.' "

Members of Kahan's audience -- the dirty half-dozen of us who are nearing the end of a four-day counterterrorism course at Dani-Hi -- aren't sure how to respond, until his face breaks into a sly grin.

The course has been rife with encounters that have left us not knowing whether to laugh, to cry, or to throw up. But in less than 90 hours, a sorry-looking bunch of executives, diplomats, and journalists have learned how to step off a cliff backward, and to disarm a knife-wielding attacker using the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, a style of close combat distinctive for its simplicity and adaptability.

The curriculum is about as far removed from "politically correct" as you can get. But is there a better place for stressed-out executives to find leadership instruction than in a country that has spent most of its history under military threat? Dani-Hi opens its gates to 500 people every day. The U.S. Delta Force has brought its elite troops here, and a Russian VIP-protection operation visited recently.

The school's weekend leadership-training program for executives, dubbed the "Dani-Hi Combat Challenge," has been popular among the high-tech companies of Herzliya, Israel's version of Silicon Valley. The course has gained international recognition as well: The group that I'm part of includes two Canadian businessmen, a Colombian dentist, and El Salvador's ambassador to Israel. Executives from global giants like Unilever and Nestlé are Dani-Hi converts too.

Our visit begins with a little bit of perspective: Don't obsess about weapons, urges Stephen Marks, 36, a course organizer who works for Edenbridge Adventure Training, the London-based organization that brought us here. Weapons are only tools for taking young leaders "out of their comfort zones," he says. "The Combat Challenge develops each person as an individual and then puts everyone together as a team."

My reaction: Tell that to Gaby and Yossi. Course instructors Gaby Shai and Yossi Avni have more than 40 years of active army service between them. Guiding participants through stressful and unfamiliar situations, they share their wisdom on self-control and on the ability to think quickly.

Each day begins with a session of Krav Maga, a synthesis of self-defense and fighting tactics that includes elements of boxing and wrestling. Unlike Far Eastern martial arts, which involve complex moves and rituals, Krav Maga showcases a person's reflexes and instinctive movements. It's all efficiency -- and no histrionics. An art of war rather than a competitive martial art, Krav Maga teaches that if you want to kick someone's head, first you knock that person to the ground, and then you kick him in the head.

Weapons training can be troubling for the gun-shy. But whether you are holding a 9mm Israeli Jericho or an Austrian Glock pistol, a rifle or an Uzi automatic, the lesson is the same: Make a decision, focus on your target, and execute your decision.

Rappelling pushes many people beyond their comfort zones, but at Dani-Hi we are taught to treat the rope as our friend -- to confront our fears and to discover our limits, even as we step backward off a 60-meter cliff, first with a lifeline to an instructor, then with nothing but our own self-reliance.

By the final day, we see ourselves as self-possessed leaders. But the one remaining hurdle -- a simulated nighttime hostage-rescue exercise, in which we get a chance to use all of our newfound competencies -- proves to us that we still have much to learn. Dropped off on a beach in enemy territory, we must make our way inland and meet our contact, "Daisy," who will arm us with paintball guns and guide us to the village where the hostages are being held.

Our chance of success is slim -- Shai and Avni are guarding the hostages -- and getting slimmer. Just five minutes into the moonlit exercise, a leadership crisis emerges, with Daniel the dentist and Herb the Montreal magnate huffing and bickering about the best way to get off the beach. After a heated exchange among the group, we decide to put the matter to a vote.

As you might guess, our "rescue" turns out to be a mess. But even that outcome teaches us one final lesson: Democracy is no substitute for strong leadership. According to Avni, the Israelis have a saying: "Even a broom can shoot." We may not have become warriors, but we've learned how to be more decisive than a broom.

Ian Wylie (ian@wylienet.demon.co.uk) is a writer and editor based in London and Newcastle upon Tyne, England. For more information on the Dani-Hi course, contact Edenbridge adventure training by email (enquiries@philipmarks.co.uk) .

Sidebar: Rules of Combat

A voice in your earpiece tells you that someone has pulled a gun in the departure lounge, but when you get there, you see no suspicious-looking people: The scene is a blur of Louis Vuitton and Samsonite. Do you have the speed of thought to identify an attacker among a mass of travelers? Do you have the clarity of vision to distinguish a gun from a camera?

At Dani-Hi, students of Krav Maga learn how to channel a human being's natural "fight-or-flight" reactions into swift tactics, summoning instantly from within themselves a warrior spirit. Whatever the identity of your assailant -- a mugger on the street who wants your money, that guy on the second floor who wants your job -- the principles of the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga will give you the clarity of mind that you need to defend yourself.

1. To see better, move back. Minimize your vulnerability to surprise. Get a better view of your target by moving away when danger approaches.

2. Practice acting natural. Know in advance what you can and cannot do when you are placed under stress. Practice bottling up your aggression for safekeeping -- and then unleashing it in an instant.

3. Speed kills (the enemy) . Anticipate your opponent's reactions, make your decision, and then execute that decision swiftly.

4. The only rule: There are no rules. Use whatever weapons and tactics you have on hand to defend yourself.

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